This scenario covers some pretty dark material, even for a Trail of Cthulhu game. Most notably it covers severe depression and suicide as its primary subject matter. If this is something that would disturb you, I’d advise that you skip this particular play report as it is integral to the investigation!
Masks of the Dreamer: Promethean (Part 2)
In this investigation by far the most important part was the first time the investigators sat down and interviewed “Henry”. At this stage they had a good idea something happened and they have a decent idea what it might be. Confirming their suspicions and elucidating the precise manner Henry ended up in this predicament was the next important step. As well as determining if the entity or person, which was now occupying Henry’s body was a potential threat to the family, or anyone else for that matter.
Roleplaying this scene was tough from my point of view for a few reasons. The first is that I had to play someone who was very confident in their own deception, but still give the players enough information and leads to go on to prove something happened – without proving it. In other words I gave indications of wrongdoing that someone suitably crazy enough to believe in magic and monsters would know is true, while seeming like regular insanity (if that is possible) to others. This conversation was tense for other reasons, because “Henry” could clearly recognize Anastasia and the fact he spoke Russian (according to the receptionist) bothered them no end. This especially worried them because they couldn’t figure out what the connection was, at least for now.
Here I espouse upon the merits of GUMSHOE and Clues
The investigators and players left this interrogation scene suitably frustrated at the general lack of progress. While they confirmed that Henry was definitely someone else, they didn’t know who, why or what they were wanting with Henry’s body. This was important for driving the plot forward and I want to take a little time to talk about frustrating players. One criticism I have seen about Trail of Cthulhu and the GUMSHOE engine behind it is that “Information is too easy!”. As Trail of Cthulhu assumes that a player with a relevant skill for a scene will get a core clue to advance the plot forward, some have interpreted this to be players just doing a “Checklist” of skills and moving on. So I use “Forensics” then “Chemistry” and so on to collect the clues.
Aside from being entirely boring, it’s actually quite a bad misinterpretation of the way GUMSHOE works. Firstly, yes, a player should be able to say “I use forensics to analyse the strange stain. What do I learn about it?” and get any relevant core clue. This information though should only be the most basic thing possible in order to drive the plot forward, such as pointing towards an old abandoned chemical plant where the monster (or whatever) was birthed from or perhaps lairs. It’s when players spend on their abilities that you should give them more complete and possibly the most relevant information.
For example, continuing with our mysterious stain above, a 1 or 2 point spend in Forensics should reveal more information and possibly crucial encounter changing ones. For example the chemicals in the stain are inert now, but that’s just due to time and when it was fresh this would have been a very strong – potentially deadly – acid to anything organic touching it. Likewise the further spend would have perhaps revealed some other chemical, like Calcium, would render this acid inert very quickly. So now you’ve built on a simple clue because of the players spend from their ability. It could even be potentially possible the player suggests one or both of these benefits and if it’s enriching the plot, you should find a way to go with their suggestions!
In other cases though it’s well worth “locking” clues behind other clues first. Generally speaking, many core clues that can only be obtained from interrogating or questioning potential witnesses, expert NPCs or captured cultists can be set up like this. GUMSHOE calls these leveraged clues and they are very important in a detective fiction style game like Trail. Here the investigators need some other piece of evidence, like testimony or physical proof contradicting the NPCs story in order to get them to open up and talk about what they really know. Alternatively the investigators simply need to know something, have an important piece of information for the NPC in exchange or a similar bargaining chip. In either case, while an investigator may have a relevant ability, unless they can piece together what is going on and present the right evidence to the NPC they won’t be able to get it.
Of course it’s really important to stress that while a little frustration is good, a lot of frustration leads to players getting bored or losing the plot. So whenever you put up a barrier like this to progressing the investigation, it’s essential to consider “What is the step the investigators need to take to get around it?”. Here during the previous interactions with the family, I had the different members and especially Anna emphasize the importance of the investigators giving their opinions to them after seeing Henry. Aside from the fact it made logical sense roleplaying wise, it was also an important hint and clue to the investigators that following up afterwards would be a rewarding experience.
Returning to Promethean…
With the definite feeling something was very much wrong with Henry, the investigators returned to the family house hold and attempted to find out more. Here Keith had a second conversation with Anna, where he confirmed her suspicions that whatever was in Henry’s body now wasn’t him. This obviously hurt the poor woman, who had done everything in her power to try to show him she had forgiven him for the accident. Sadly, Henry was determined to pay the ultimate price and it didn’t look as if whoever he met online was the true catalyst, but rather his own guilt. Anna handed Keith the suicide note that she had found, which she had kept from the others in the house and had not let anyone else see. It’s here that I gave her a powerful moment in the narrative, when she asked Keith “Give this to whoever is in him now and see if there is any shred of humanity left”.
The way I envisage Anna to look, with the art by the extremely talented Jason Chan.
This was Henry’s suicide note and his description of the accident, which rendered Anna disabled. It became clear Henry’s inability to cope with seeing Anna permanently injured caused him to spiral out of control. Once he became enamored with “Lydia” and her suicide pact, he made the fateful decision to buy into it and sadly lost his life to the sorcerer. His reasoning was to make atonement for everything that he had done to Anna, despite the fact she had forgiven him and wasn’t giving up on her life. She was still making something of it, resuming going to University and being determined not to let her disability prevent her from doing whatever she wanted. To Henry this was just a show to make him feel better and his life was no longer worth it, so he had to pay a price.
If that short summary just sounds really depressing and generally sad, well, it’s because it is. This note was a very important part of this investigation however, as it is the essential leveraged clue that the party needed to draw whoever was in Henry out. This is important because while there is no devastating evidence about what happened or a “There was magic done to me!” in it, what I wanted to do was show that whoever was in Henry had some kind of humanity. Upon reading this note, they would actually feel the most human of emotions: Guilt. Instead of using Henry’s body as a stop gap solution (more on this later), they would instead actually want to do some atonement of their own for the people damaged by their predation of Henry.
This was important to show the investigators, because as you may imagine by this point the knives were well and truly out for Henry’s sorcery based murderer. My players utterly hated him and were definitely plotting to kill them as soon as possible. By having the “villain” show actual remorse and shock at what they had done, would help to give the investigators the idea there might be something redeemable about them. Of course, that this villain had some major bargaining chips was a big deal as well, but we’ll get to that very shortly.
Before going back to Henry for the second time, we actually gained back the missing two investigators in Eva and Damian. They rejoined the party on the way back to Henry’s second interrogation, where Maggie again got access to him using her MD Licenses. This time once Henry was able to read the note, initially with confusion as they didn’t recognize where it was from (EG that it was “Henry”), the investigators told them with a very interesting result. Shock, sadness and more than a bit of regret crossed Henry’s face as they realized their “Target” had not been someone with nothing left to live for.
At this point the entity or person within Henry explained some of their motivations, how they normally would only transfer to the body of another woman and only someone who truly didn’t have anything else in their life to live for. The decision to target Henry was an entirely rapid and not well researched plan B, after the woman they had planned to target did the entire ritual by herself without warning ruining everything. Then she* (it’s a woman inside Henry, or at least they suspect it is) panicked as the Esoteric Order of Dagon was increasingly catching up to her previous identity. Naturally at the mention of the parties main group of enemies, they asked what it was the Order were after her for. After some thought, she said that she wouldn’t say what it was inside… they would need to get her released.
Conveniently, this is something that the family readily agreed to and as Maggie was getting “through” to the previously non-talkative Henry the hospital was happy to release Henry into her care. With Henry’s release secured, the sorcerer began to talk to the investigators about what they knew about the Order of Dagon and their past. It turned out whoever Henry was originally had been a powerful sorcerer in the cult of VII, but was too “extreme” for them so was tossed out. She and another sorcerer, who was not currently known but was excommunicated with her, waged a bit of a personal war against the Order by themselves. They assassinated various members, stole things important to the Order and generally interfered with their plans.
Time caught up to them and so did the Order, so they both came up with a plan to use a powerful ritual to transfer their essence and consciousness into other bodies to evade notice. This became especially important after they stole an extremely rare artifact from the Order and then buried it in an unknown location. If either of them were ever to be captured by the Order, there was always the threat of them revealing the location of how to find it through magic or torture. Given the investigators were clear enemies of the Order and the sorcerer felt she didn’t have much other choice in the matter, she promised to lead them right to it.
Basically after the terrible things she’s done, the only way I figured the plot could advance was if there was a really tangible reward for the investigators in helping. After quite a bit of debate about what to do about this situation, the investigators decided they would agree to help the sorcerer within Henry…. for now.
Initially they dropped “Henry” off at the house and there was a clearly awkward meeting with Anna, where she basically acted like it was really her former love – even if she knew full well it wasn’t anymore. I feel this scene more than any others really underscored how sick and particularly tragic the situation between them was. The pretend loving glances, holding hands and even a kiss made some of my players visibly squirm at the table. The plan was set though, with the investigators giving “Henry” several days to get used to the new surroundings, before they would go on a little day trip to the English countryside.
Once again the medical license Maggie had was essential in convincing the family to let “Henry” out and go with the investigators. After a several hour drive into the countryside amongst the three vehicles the investigators brought along, “Henry” instructed Damian to drive straight into a particularly vicious looking hedge. Unfortunately Damian failed the stability check to outright do so and couldn’t hold his nerve, swerving the car as a natural reaction. This resulted in slamming the car straight into actual thorny hedge and trees doing a fair bit of harm to those inside!
Unimpressed “Henry” scolded Damian and then walked right through the hedge and seemingly disappeared! It would seem there was more to this seemingly impregnable hedge than first appearances would have you believe. Holding their nerves this time, the investigators went right though and found themselves in a strange, dim forest with immensely high thorny walls on either side. Odd sounds and a seemingly starless sky greeted them, giving them a sensation of being in a place that wasn’t right whatsoever.
Moving through, they soon encountered an enclosed circular grove with a babbling brook stream running through it, complimented by a large stone in the center and a gnarled tree standing over everything. Additionally there was a further surprise, as Dimitri – Anastasia’s childhood friend – stood there waiting as well. Naturally this derived a tremendous amount of speculation and worry from the investigators, but he soon tried to explain himself to his lifelong friend (Dimitri is one of Anastasia’s sources of stability). When “Henry” wandered up and greeted Dimitri (who is married with children incidentally) by giving him a long passionate kiss, everyone wondered if the Soap of Cthulhu was back once again.
Here is where Keith managed to run into a bit of trouble. You might remember from my write ups that I’ve allowed Keith a sort of “seeing stone”, which can sometimes see the true way objects actually are. Well he decided to use it here, with various nasty results such as seeing that the gnarled tree was no tree at all (I’ve leave you to speculate what he saw). Not to mention all the blood on the stone and the screaming horrifying faces within the babbling brook. Indeed, this place to the other investigators was nothing more than a total illusion of tranquility: But it was clearly somewhere entirely else and extremely awful.
At this point “Henry” had the investigators dig up the bones of someone and then array them on the sacrificial stone. Intoning an old ritual, he restored the bones to life and a highly confused man – who claimed to be a druid – started to babble. Thankfully Keith and Maggie calmed him down a bit, to the point where he was able to give the investigators the location of the missing artifact that had been stolen from there (in reality, “Henry” couldn’t remember its precise location so needed this druids magic to find it). Before the old druid could say anymore, Dimitri leveled his gun at him and sprayed his brains everywhere – much to the investigators disgust. He then ended up buried back in the same hole they found him and it was time to get out of this mad realm.
The farmhouse where the item was buried had long since been abandoned, due to the influence of the artifact causing strange issues in the animals and plants grown there. So when the investigators arrived they found it covered by grass almost 3ft tall all over. Careful observation revealed something seemingly snaking about in the grass, leaving clear tracks and they seemed to be following them…
Eventually they found where the artifact was buried and again had to do some more digging. By this point night had fallen and the things parting the grass were only getting bolder and closer. Soon they had their prize though, which seemed to be a strange old wooden mask and upon taking it, the creatures attacked. Wolf like monstrosities with plant like growths, sharp pointed wood teeth and snake like vines pounced forth. Initially the investigators tried to flee, but were soon caught by the vile beasts and had to fight. Although most of the party got wounded, they were able to drive them off – although IMO there was a feeling of it being a little too easy – and eventually got back into their cars.
To avoid suspicion and too many questions, they dropped “Henry” back off and honestly, that he managed to survive the investigation was actually quite remarkable to me. After this the only question left was a matter of deciding what they needed to do to keep this artifact safe from the wrong people….